About Horticulture Therapy

An Introduction to Horticulture Therapy

The therapeutic benefits of garden environments have been documented since ancient times. In the 19th century, Dr. Benjamin Rush, a signer of the Declaration of  Independence and recognized as the “Father of American Psychiatry,” was first to document the positive effect working in the garden had on individuals with mental illness.

In the 1940s and 1950s, rehabilitative care of hospitalized war veterans significantly expanded acceptance of the practice. No longer limited to treating mental illness, Horticulture Therapy (HT) practice gained in credibility and was embraced for a much wider range of diagnoses and therapeutic options. Today, HT is accepted as a beneficial and effective therapeutic modality. It is widely used within a broad range of rehabilitative, vocational, and community settings.

HT techniques are employed to assist participants to learn new skills or regain those that are lost. HT helps improve memory, cognitive abilities, task initiation, language skills, and socialization. In physical rehabilitation, HT can help strengthen muscles and improve coordination, balance, and endurance. In vocational HT settings, people learn to work independently, problem solve, and follow directions.

Horticulture Therapy Today

Over the past decade there has been a surge of interest in the people/plant relationship, and a great increase of horticultural activities in treatment programs. This has led to the use of numerous terms for these programs. Because these terms are often used interchangeably it is difficult to distinguish one from another and “horticultural therapy” has often been used as the catch-all phrase. There are, in fact, some crucial differences between terms.

Likewise, gardens designed to support people-plant interactions and human well-being have been referred to as healing gardens, therapeutic gardens, and restorative gardens, among others. There are, however, some essential differences among garden types that can provide clarity to their design and purpose.

To increase understanding of the profession, the American Horticultural Therapy Association (AHTA) has put together the following outline to define the terms recognized by AHTA that are associated with people-plant relationships and to provide additional information on horticultural therapy.

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Types of Programs


Horticultural Therapy

Horticultural therapy is the engagement of a client in horticultural activities facilitated
by a trained therapist to achieve specific and documented treatment goals. AHTA believes that horticultural therapy is an active process which occurs in the context of an established treatment plan where the process itself is considered the therapeutic activity rather than the end product. Horticultural therapy programs can be found in a wide variety of health care, rehabilitative, and residential settings.

Therapeutic Horticulture

Therapeutic horticulture is a process that uses plants and plant-related activities through which participants strive to improve their well-being through active or passive involvement. In a therapeutic horticulture program, goals are not clinically defined and documented but the leader will have training in the use of horticulture as a medium for human well-being. This type of program may be found in a wide variety of health care, rehabilitative, and residential settings.

Social Horticulture

Social horticulture, sometimes referred to as community horticulture, is a leisure or recreational activity related to plants and gardening. No treatment goals are defined, no therapist is present, and the focus is on social interaction and horticulture activities. A typical community garden or garden club is a good example of a social horticulture setting.

Vocational Horticulture

A vocational horticulture program, which is often a major component of a horticultural therapy program, focuses on providing training that enables individuals to work in the horticulture industry professionally, either independently or semi-independently. These individuals may or may not have some type of disability. Vocational horticultural programs may be found in schools, residential facilities, or rehabilitation facilities, among others.

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Types of Therapy Gardens

Healing Gardens

Healing gardens are plant dominated environments including green plants, flowers, water, and other aspects of nature. They are generally associated with hospitals and other health care settings, designated as healing gardens by the facility, accessible to all, and designed to have beneficial effects on most users. A healing garden is designed as a retreat and a place of respite for clients, visitors, and staff and to be used at their desire. Healing gardens may be further divided into specific types of gardens including therapeutic gardens, horticultural therapy gardens, and restorative gardens.

Therapeutic Gardens

A therapeutic garden is designed for use as a component of a treatment program such as occupational therapy, physical therapy, or horticultural therapy programs and can be considered as a subcategory of a healing garden. A garden can be described as being therapeutic in nature when it has been designed to meet the needs of a specific user or population. It is designed to accommodate client treatment goals and may provide for both horticultural and non-horticultural activities. A therapeutic garden may exist on its own as an extension of an indoor therapeutic program area or it may be part of a larger healing garden.

Horticultural Therapy Gardens

A horticultural therapy garden is a type of therapeutic garden; it is designed to accommodate client treatment goals, but it is designed to support primarily horticultural activities. A horticultural therapy garden is also designed in such a manner that the clients themselves are able to take care of plant material in the garden.

Restorative Gardens

A restoration or meditation garden may be a public or private garden that is not necessarily associated with a health care setting. This type of garden employs the restorative value of nature to provide an environment conducive to mental repose, stress-reduction, emotional recovery, and the enhancement of mental and physical energy. The design of a restorative garden focuses on the psychological, physical, and social needs of the users.

adapted from the American Horticultural Therapy Association (AHTA) website: http://ahta.org

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